There’s a moment that sticks out in my memory from the first time I stood for election. It was the local elections on the morning of 4th May, 2000, and I was knocking-up old ladies – which, as those of you who avoided a cheap snigger will know, means I was calling on those who’d said they’d vote and were either likely Lib Dems or persuadables.
Mary lived in a small cottage in the village at the heart of the ward: conservation area, expensive houses, mostly Tory. When she opened the door to me, there was a pink glow of excitement on her face. “I’ve already voted!” she declared. My heart sank: too late for a doorstep conversion. Just be polite, promise to work hard no matter what, and move along. “I’ve voted Conservative all my life. But not this time. I’ve just gone and voted for you!”
There are a lot of Marys around. They live in seats like Sutton, Yeovil, Cheadle and Eastbourne, all held by Lib Dems and all formerly Conservative. And it is folk like Mary who help to explain Nick Clegg’s calculated strategy to contest the 2015 general election resolutely in the centre-ground.
Today Nick Clegg is making a major speech on Europe. It’s been billed by the press as “one of the most strident speeches on Europe that Mr Clegg has made”. So I think it’s safe to say he’s not delivering it with a ConservativeHome readership in mind. But he is – and this is a crucial point to understand his pitch – making it with a Conservative audience in mind. He will, we are told, mount a strong attack on the Conservative leadership, arguing that by contemplating an EU exit they are guilty of “a short-sighted political calculation that could jeopardise the long-term national interest. It is playing with fire and, if we go down this track, it is Britain that will get burned.”
You, dear reader, may well think it’s madness…
“A pro-EU speech from the leader of a party that regards its poll ratings as on the up if they reach double figures? You just wait, Tall, until 2015 and the voters’ revenge.”
But, as I say, Nick Clegg doesn’t really care about you. (Don’t misunderstand me: I’m sure he’d love each of you individually. Just not en masse.) Instead, he’ll be talking to the 25 per cent of voters who tell pollsters they will consider voting Lib Dem in 2015.
Ten per cent of these are pretty solid Lib Dems: you have to be to have stuck with the party over the past three years. The other 15 per cent divide more or less evenly between persuadable Conservative voters, persuadable Labour voters, and the non-aligned. People like Mary. The party’s task in the next 18 months is to win over as many of these three groups as possible.
We know we aren’t going to hit the 23 per cent of the vote we polled in 2010. But every percentage point we can climb above our current 10 per cent is likely to translate into an extra couple of seats saved – which, incidentally, is likely to mean an extra couple of Tory targets missed.
The Lib Dems do not have a polling operation to match Lord Ashcroft’s – no party does – but for the first time a serious attempt has been made to survey what is referred to internally as “our market” (a term which causes many in the Lib Dems openly to wince). And what this has revealed is that the Lib Dem message on Europe is, wait for it… a vote-winner with our target audience. That’s right: a majority of currently declared Conservative voters who would consider voting Lib Dem are broadly pro-EU. Yes, there are many aspects of the European Union that grate, annoy, baffle and vex. But, on balance, they think the UK is better off in than out and they respect the Lib Dems for pushing that argument.
The same, incidentally, is true of persuadable Labour voters, too, as well as the non-aligned. It’s no accident that Nick Clegg’s speech will praise the approach to Europe of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair: “Our experiences only prove what we have seen with every government for the last 60 years: if you want Europe to deliver for Britain, you have to lead. Margaret Thatcher led when she helped pioneer the single market. Tony Blair led when he and Jaqcues Chirac launched EU defence and security co-operation.”
Even better from Nick Clegg’s point of view, the message goes down very well with Lib Dem voters and with party activists – which offers him the freedom available to no other party leader: to argue the case for Europe knowing both that his own side are on-side and that it will strengthen the Lib Dem appeal to those to whom we want to appeal. David Cameron and Ed Miliband may not envy Nick his party’s poll ratings: but they will be jealous of his freedom to say what he believes on Europe without worrying about internal splits or offending the voters whose support they need.
There is, therefore, more than a little method to what may seem like madness. Nick Clegg making a virtue of his pro-Europeanism will win him few friends here. But people like Mary will hear his message – liberal, pragmatic, centrist – and they will listen. And it’s the votes of her, and the other Conservative supporters who think like her, which will decide how many of those seats currently stacked up in the Yellow Peril column are still there after 2015.